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The Real Deal 

by Ann M. Colford

Several friends of mine bought houses this year. A few are first-timers, while others are getting back into the market following a major life change. Considering that I hang out with a bunch of starving-artist types, this trend toward property ownership speaks volumes about the effect of low interest rates. It also underscores just how deeply home ownership is ingrained in the American psyche, even among those who choose to live a largely counter-cultural lifestyle.

But, as Arlo Guthrie would say, that's not what I came here to talk about. Witnessing the angst of homebuyers up close led me to ponder the emotional stages of purchasing a residence. Real estate professionals and guidebooks happily step the neophyte through the nuts and bolts of the process, but there's more to buying a house than simply completing a checklist. The purchase of a home is fraught with emotional stumbling blocks, as my friends can attest.

Research turned up a dearth of material on the emotional side of home-buying. Entire books are dedicated to home-buying, but these focus on careful shopping, the potential pitfalls of financing and the ins and outs of real estate contracts. Many of these sources mention in passing that purchasing a home is an emotional roller coaster ride, but none delve further into the psychological terrain.

Several writers in the field of psychology have outlined the emotional stages of life's transitions. In her seminal work, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described the five stages of grieving. The stages she outlined -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance -- have been adapted by counselors to guide clients through everything from divorce to terminal illness. Perhaps these stages could be used to explain the emotional journey of the home buyer. Here are the five stages I see:

* Unbridled optimism. In this stage the client has visions of an idyllic cottage complete with gardens and a white picket fence -- or the alternative scene of a home theater room with a wide-screen TV and a fully stocked wet bar. Home ownership is equated with controlling one's destiny, expressing one's truest self, and joining the millions of others living the American Dream.

* Righteous indignation. Here's where financial reality kicks in, and the client begins to see what the bankers see. And the picture isn't pretty. Total credit card debt is how much? And that sporty mid-life crisis car that seemed like such a good idea last year won't be paid off until when? Echoes of parental authority seep into the voice of the mortgage lender, dredging up long-forgotten feelings of inadequacy and resentment.

* Bargaining. Rationalists engage in superstitious behavior and people with absolutely no prior faith life begin a regimen of prayer. Please, God, if you let me get this house, I'll give everything I own -- that's not mortgaged or secured -- to your favorite charity. I'll never gossip or say a bad word about anyone again, even that little snit in the mortgage office who treats me like the moral equivalent of pigeon guano. Of course, there's financial bargaining at this stage, too, but it pales in comparison to the internal dialogues.

* Panic-depression. Earmarks of this stage are a sense of helplessness and resignation, punctuated by screaming fits of panic. I'm a pawn in the giant pinball game of real estate. My fate is out of my hands. I'm going to be in debt for the rest of my life -- and then some. The home-buying process takes on a life of its own, and the client's emotions rev into overdrive.

* Acceptance. The closing happens, and the client becomes a homeowner. Now the client and the house are partners, for better or for worse, until a sale does them part. OK, so it's not a two-butt kitchen; we can live with that. And the yard's kind of small, but that means fewer leaves to rake. The matchmaking is over, and the long-term relationship begins.

This model explains some of the emotions of the homebuyer, but it's not perfect. The final stage hints at parallels with relationship development, and one friend who recently succumbed to the real estate bug equates the experience to dating. She outlined stages from denial -- "I'm fine being single" -- through developing criteria and setting standards -- the "This guy is an ignorant idiot" phase -- past disappointment and moving on, all the way to relief -- "Omigod, he proposed! I'm getting married! I'm so in love! This is for life!"

Given the level of financial commitment and lengthy term of most mortgages, perhaps this last comparison is the most apt. n

Bought a house lately? What emotional stages did you go through? Let me know at [email protected]

Publication date: 10/30/03

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